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Crimes and punishment: time to cauterize, and restore rule of law

I have been asked to comment on the implications of the recent elections for the economy and the nation.  While some of you may find my remarks somewhat partisan, let me begin by quoting Newt Gingrich, who a week ago said, “the Republican party is s

Editors’ note: The following is adapted from a post-election speech by C. Ford Runge, delivered earlier this month at the Minneapolis Club.

I have been asked to comment on the implications of the recent elections for the economy and the nation. While some of you may find my remarks somewhat partisan, let me begin by quoting Newt Gingrich, who a week ago said, “the Republican Party is struggling to get beyond incompetence.”  I will divide my assessment into two parts:  an appraisal of the damages of the last eight years, and a proposed, if partial, remedy – focusing on that which underlies markets: confidence and the rule of law. 

The damages may be assessed at three levels: here in Minnesota, nationally, and internationally. In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been an effective extension of the Bush regime, pursuing a [Grover] Norquist strategy of starving the public sector of infrastructure, health care and education in the name of no new taxes. This has been supported by Tim Penny and Peter Hutchinson, whose “independence” allowed them to become agents of Republican strategy by ensuring Pawlenty’s election and re-election. His true stripes were further revealed by Penny’s support for Bush’s ill-conceived privatization of Social Security, then his even more craven support for John McCain, more or less in line with the politics of Joe Lieberman.  Meanwhile, declining health care and education push Minnesota toward middling mediocrity: all by design. Sen. Norm Coleman, another apparatchik of President Bush, has bobbed and weaved but accomplished little or nothing to justify his now questionable re-election.

Nationally, the White House’s reckless policy of piling deficits upon deficits has taken away most of the degrees of freedom Bush inherited from the budget surpluses of President Clinton. Where has this taken us?  Into historically negative fiscal territory: a deficit of $805 billion and national debt of $10.2 trillion at last count (with the war entirely off-budget). Alan Greenspan was clearly complicit in a deregulatory approach that created huge opportunities for derivative-derived mischief, and an unprecedented moral hazard problem once Henry Paulson ham-fistedly threw billions at banks while treating them inconsistently and arbitrarily, shifting positions from day to day in a way that communicated a total lack of authority to markets seeking reassurance. 

An assault on the Constitution
The Iraq and Afghan wars have plodded on at a cost of billions per week, “terrorism” having lost both its force and moral imperative as a basis for policy.  Meanwhile, the assault on constitutional norms is revealed in the low-grade corruption of the Bush Interior Department and the malfeasance of Alberto Gonzales, who despite being a judge, clearly intended to undermine the U.S. Constitution with political appointments and a cheerleader’s willingness to endorse denial of detainees’ habeas corpus rights.
Internationally, America has fallen from a position of near-hegemony and authority to one of the least respected nations on earth, whose economic irresponsibility (not unlike Argentina’s) has (unlike Argentina’s) brought Europe and Asia down with it, vaporizing trillions of dollars around the globe. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are held in international contempt for their incompetent negotiating ability and amorality. In short:  We have been through eight years ending in a complete financial wreck.

So much for a damage assessment. What about a remedy? Should we let bygones by bygones as we attempt to resurrect the nation and economy? I don’t think so. Here I propose mainly a response to the sepsis that has infected the institutions of government, which has important implications for market confidence as well. The greatest antiseptics to organized corruption are sunlight and the rule of law. This means both open investigations and exposure of wrongdoing, and civil and criminal prosecutions when wrongdoing is revealed.
A return to justice
Violations of the Civil Service code and Hatch Act throughout the Bush administration – especially at the Interior Department – and the extraordinary constitutional violations of the Bush-Gonzales Justice Department are criminal at a fundamental level. Gonzales was not merely a baby-faced incompetent, but a likely criminal. Finally, the World Court should examine censure, and possible prosecution of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice for the willing detention and torture of “detainees” at Abu Graib, Guantanamo and black sites elsewhere. Chuckie Taylor of Liberia was convicted on Oct. 30 of torture under the U.S. Torture Victim Protection Act of 1994. This statute applies to U.S. citizens regardless of when the crimes occurred. The president, vice president, secretary of defense and secretary of state did not personally torture detainees, but they authorized and condoned it. As Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., noted in the Nov. 13 New York Times, “We could spend the next four years investigating the Bush years.”
Instead, the new administration should pick two or three egregious examples, say Gonzales and some Interior Department Bush cronies, for prosecution. Why be so harsh?  Why not let bygones be bygones? Because if these acts of criminality can be cauterized through prosecution and trial, there is a chance that the state and nation can be brought to an even keel, and that confidence in the rule of law and regulation restored. Without them, the nation will suffer from what the Greeks called akrasia, or weakness of will, which can only be remedied by open investigation and recognition of crimes and their punishment.

C . Ford Runge is the Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law, University of Minnesota.  This article reflects his views and not those of the University of Minnesota.   

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